Pan-Asia Film Festival: Headshot (2011)

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Have you ever stumbled into a film festival by accident? Well I did last week.

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On a whim I decided to head to the ICA for Headshot, an intriguing sounding Thai noir involving a hit man who ends up with inverse vision. Turns out it was part of the Pan-Asia Film Festival, a mini festival of sorts, aiming at promoting awareness of a whole variety of Asian cultures.

The film itself was solid fare. A puply gang thriller that was aiming at a Takeshi Kitano or early Tarantino type feel, but with an incongruous diversion into a Wong Kar-wai style reflective voice over.

Headshot never quite reconciles its pulp desires, genre innovations (the upside down vision is sadly underdeveloped), and Buddhist ruminations, but some clever editing between character timelines and some spectacular bursts of violence ensure it is an enjoyable watch.

Viewed at: The ICA

Nick Sparks and the ‘women’s picture’ – a review of Safe Haven

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There’s something to be said for a well made genre pic.

Safe Haven occupies that new, specific sub-genre of romantic fiction – the Nicholas Sparks adaptation – and while it isn’t art, it does everything I would expect from a romantic melodrama.

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The thing I find fascinating about Nick Sparks films is that once upon a time they would have been called ‘women’s pictures’. They’re the kind of film that in the 1930s and 40s would have played at matinees for housewives, with an attractive ‘matinee idol’ being won over by a timid love interest. Likewise, the contemporary counterparts become vehicles for the likes of Channing Tatum, Zac Efron, and Josh Duhamel to show off the charms that a small town girl just can’t resist.

Those 30s and 40s films were seen as throwaway entertainment at the time, just as the Nick Sparks flick is now, yet time and critical reappraisal do wonderful things. Nowadays Letter from an Unknown Woman is (rightly) celebrated as a masterpiece, whilst books have been written on the cheap British pictures of the same period, largely made by the Gainsborough studio, often starring James Mason – I myself am quite fond of Madonna of the Seven Moons, a Gainsborough film full of fantasy and desire.

I find it unlikely that Safe Haven will in 60 or so years time become regarded as an outright classic, but it is a thoroughly enjoyable distraction, and joins a group of films which I think are interesting in terms of art and pop culture. I’m also pretty sure that one day I’ll casually watch one of these romantic flicks and it’ll be genuinely brilliant. And that’s why I love genre films.

Viewed at: Cineworld Wood Green

Cloud Atlas (2012) – review

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Cloud Atlas is an awesome symphony of high concept pulp and pop philosophy, woven together with plenty of passion and determination.

If that sounds like something I’ve already written, it’s because it is. Sometimes 140 characters is all you need to review a film, which is why I’m quite proud of the tweet I wrote along those lines immediately after seeing the film.

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With its numerous narratives featuring actors in multiple roles, Cloud Atlas was always going to be an ambitious undertaking. But I’m pleased to say that, for me at least, it’s a pretty resounding success.

My main worry was the the stories would lack depth and emotional punch by being spread too thinly. And actually, taken individually they don’t amount to much. But because the narrative is thematically arranged the multiple tales bounce off one another in a superbly edited rhythm. There’s a flow to everything that actually works more like music than film, something which is underlined by the prominence of a piece of music written by Ben Wishaw’s character in the 1936 segment: ‘The Cloud Atlas Sextet’. In fact the score and editing are wonderful throughout, both characters in the film as much as the actors.

Cloud Atlas is an odd combination of pulp fiction, high concept blockbuster, and art film. Essentially it’s composed of relatively shallow pop philosophy, a la the Wachowski’s previous Matrix films, but the broad range and rhythmic editing push it almost into the realm of art film, albeit one with lots of CGI. I guess the closest comparison would be Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain, and I expect Aronofsky’s casting of Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz across three separate time periods influenced the casting here, where a small cast of actors pick up various characters across the ages.

And the casting in Cloud Atlas certainly is odd/bold (delete as applicable). Hugh Grant as a cannibal? Why not. Hugo Weaving in drag? It’s not like he hasn’t done it before. Halle Berry as a white woman and Jim Sturgess as a South Korean? Fuck racial boundaries. And then there’s Jim Broadbent, who seems to be in a different film entirely no matter what section he turns up in. At times it’s almost pantomime, yet I still found it endearing.

Ultimately I would be surprised if Cloud Atlas connects with a large audience just because it’s so unusual. And really fucking long. But for me it’s a rather enjoyable grand folly. Perhaps it will be remembered as a cult favourite in years to come. An elaborate, symphonic, melodrama of a cult favourite.

Viewed at: Cineworld Wood Green

Lawrence of Arabia (1962) – review

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Despite the fact i watch a lot of films, there are still quite a few classics I am yet to see. Some of them are quite intimidating too. Take Lawrence of Arabia for instance, a 4 hour British epic from the early ’60s? My taste in classic movies is more like 90 minute thrillers from the ’40s.

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But I’m so glad I took the plunge and finally watched Lawrence of Arabia. After failing to find time for a 4 hour cinema trip upon its re-release last summer I added it to my LoveFilm queue. I popped in the blu-ray with apprehension, expecting to watch it in easily digestible chunks, and then something happened… I was completely gripped by it. I watched the whole thing straight through (with a break for ice cream at the interval, as you do) without a care for the duration and with no moments where I reached for the distraction of my smartphone (as I so often do at home).

It’s epic in every manner of the word: Utterly enthralling, beautifully photographed, acted and paced, with sublime music. Those 4 hours absolutely flew by. The way that David Lean handles everything is exemplary, and I would happily list it as one of the best directed films I’ve ever seen. So let this be a lesson, it’s often worth just going for it classics no matter your preconceptions, you never know what you may discover.

Viewed on: Blu-ray

Side By Side (2012) – review

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I saw Side By Side a week or so ago and meant to review it whilst still in cinemas. But the good news is it’s now available on various On Demand services where it’s probably better suited anyway.

side-by-side-image..Side By side is essentially a documentary for film nerds like myself. Keanu Reeves interviews a host of directors, cinematographers and other technical movie types about the rise of digital cameras and the decline in movies shot on film. The documentary asks whether digital cinematography is now up to the standard of 35mm, and if there will come a point where film as a format disappears altogether.

I for one still prefer seeing films shot on film, but Reeve’s interviewees make a good case for digital. The ease and speed with which one can shoot, the reduced costs, and the constantly developing camera technology present it as a very viable alternative to 35mm.

In fact, if anything, the film seems a little biased towards promoting digital. Only Christopher Nolan and his cinematographer Wally Pfister make stong arguments in favor of film. Elsewhere, the impressive cast of interviewees is largely made up of those who have already adopted the technology – David Fincher, David Lynch, George Lucas, James Cameron, Robert Rodriguez, Danny Boyle and the like.

I would have liked a little more emphasis on distribution – the poor quality of 2k Digital Cinema Projection is skipped over; plus an exploration of the intricacies of various film formats such as 70mm (see The Master) and 16mm (see Beasts of the Southern Wild) would have been nice. Here it’s a straight up fight between old tech (superior in terms of image quality) and new tech (superior in a host of other ways).

Overall Side By Side is a very insightful documentary and a must for anyone interested in the movie industry or the future of digital technology. Despite the subject, it’s not a hugely cinematic documentary, so it will work well on a small screen. Side By Side then is recommended viewing on the On Demand formats it currently occupies, and certainly a must see when it inevitably arrives on BBC4 or More4 at some point in the future.

Viewed at: Ritzy Cinema

For Ellen (2012) – review

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As I exited the Curzon Soho on Sunday they were prepping for Nicole Kidman to walk down a red carpet later that night in support of Stoker. The connection? The Kidman movie in question is an Ameican film directed by a Korean – Oldboy’s Park Chan Wook – and the film I had just seen was also made in America by a Korean director.

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To be fair, calling For Ellen director So Yong Kim Korean is a bit of a stretch since she grew up in LA, but her previous directorial efforts were Korean films so we’ll go with it.

And For Ellen certainly has an LA air to it though, despite being set in upstate New York. Kim evokes Sophia Coppola in her portrayal of restless detachment against the backdrop of a career in performance.

Paul Dano plays a young rock singer who travels from Chicago to snowy New York state to sign his divorce papers. Insular and self destructive, he struggles to deal with the real world-issues at hand, particularly the discovery that he’ll no longer be allowed contact with his daughter.

The film is reflective and slow to the point of seeming like one big indie cliche. Long handheld takes of NOT MUCH HAPPENING are interspersed with wistful landscape shots which suggest we should FEEL THINGS. And occasionally an extreme close up pops up to show us the INTENSITY OF IT ALL.

Dano’s performance is good though, conveying progressive mental despair and unease with the world. Plus a few scenes let him play up to some painfully awkward interactions with others, demonstrating the character’s inability to interact with ‘normal’ human beings who exist outside of his bubbled world.

These supposed ‘normal’ people are represented largely by Jon Heder’s socially awkward young lawyer who lives at home with his mother. A trip to a bar with the fledgling rock singer is bound to provide a hilarious but insightful juxtaposition right?

For all its genre conceit, I still rather enjoyed For Ellen. But it is admittedly the kind of affected indie film I like. For Ellen might be unoriginal, but it is at least small, personal, and thoughtful.

Viewed at : Curzon Soho

No (2012) – review

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I know it’s very early to talk about favourites, but if I see ten films this year that I enjoy more than No we’re in for a very good year.

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Put simply, No is almost as tense as Argo and almost as deep a character study as Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. Add to that a thrilling political backdrop and you’ve got yourself a pretty special movie.

Gael Garcia Bernal plays a young advertising man working on campaigns for the likes of Coca Cola rip-offs and Chilean soap operas. But when a seemingly hopeless referendum comes along to determine whether dictator General Pinochet should remain in power or not, Bernal’s character is offered the ‘No’ campaign – producing a series of 15 minute political broadcasts aired once a day with the aim of encouraging the populace to overthrow their government by vote.

Bernal has so much charisma that it carries the film a long way. He’s magnetic to watch on screen but he’s also an extremely talented actor. Alongside the advertising narrative – which calls on his charisma to convince political figures to trust him in going entirely against their instincts and produce a glossy campaign aimed at youth – there’s a human side to the story where relationships are filled out with depth yet subtlety.  Bernal’s boss takes on the Yes campaign causing a fraught relationship based on admiration and mistrust, he worries for his son’s safety as a result of going up against the government, and a no-good ex-wife is always getting in trouble for protesting against the dictatorship. These are all strands that flesh out the already tense narrative and add some personal drama.

One striking thing about No’s design, and a very bold move, is that the whole thing is shot on 80s standard TV video. It’s essentially VHS, and the low fidelity is initially jolting, but there’s a certain charm to it, as well as heaps of authenticity. What using this format does so well is blur the boundaries between movie and reality. Archive ads and news broadcasts were shot in the same format so it to keeps you in the moment when they pop up, fully absorbing the viewer in late-80s Chile.

Remember Emilio Estevez’s 2006 Robert F. Kennedy flick Bobby? And how that lurched between formats, always highlighting the old and the new? There are countless movies which make these mistakes but No isn’t one of them. No is truly immersive and thrillingly engaging because of it.

If you haven’t got the idea yet, I really liked no. This weekend it’s expanding to more cinemas, so I would really urge you to go see it.

Viewed at: The ICA

Lincoln (2012) – review

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I’ve got to say I found Lincoln a bit of a bore initially. It’s an overlong political recital, which mainly consists of white men talking about politics and trying to win votes amongst their peers. 

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Which isn’t by default a bad thing,  but when you already know the ending there’s a lack of tension. Plus it’s not like we’re supporting the underdog here. It’s Abraham fucking Lincoln!

On reflection though, there’s a human core to Lincoln which I lost amongst the history lesson. It’s a very subtly moving film. Lincoln is understated, slow burning and lingers. This can mainly be attributed to three fine performances. Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field and Tommy Lee Jones develop their characters so subtly that you barely notice a progression.  But by the end of the film they are in quite different places to where they began, and you start to realise the toll the battle against slavery has taken on them.

Viewed at: Cineworld Enfield

For your consideration…

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A Hitchcock classic and a film so bad it’s good.

Here are a collection of screenings worth checking out in London this week:

 

  • b70-5617Film(s): Psycho
  • Where: Gate Picturehouse, Notting Hill
  • When: Saturday 9th Feb
  • What: A late night screening of the Hitchcock horror

 

 

  • imagesFilm(s): The Room
  • Where: The Prince Charles Cinema, Leicester Square
  • When: Friday 8th to Monday 11th Feb
  • What: The cult classic introduced by director Tommy Wiseau. Limited tickets available

 

 

  • punch-drunk-love-posterFilm(s): Punch Drunk Love
  • Where: The Prince Charles Cinema, Leicester Square
  • When: Wednesday 13th Feb
  • What: Paul Thomas Anderson’s oddball romantic comedy

 

 

  • AFICHE-NO-GAEL-GARCIA-ALTAFilm(s): No
  • Where: ICA, Rio, Curzon Soho, Cine Lumiere
  • When: All week
  • What: Chilean drama with Gael Garcia Bernal

 

 

Mai Mai Miracle (2009) – Once Upon a Time in Japan festival

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Last week The Japan Foundation put on an excellent mini festival of recent Japanese cinema at the ICA. I unfortunately only got to see one film, but it looked like an excellent lineup all round. Titled Once Upon a Time in Japan, there were modern Hitchcockian murder-mysteries and grand period pieces alike.

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The film I caught was Mai Mai Miracle, which, according to the rather lovely Japanese lady who introduced the film, was actually the first time the Japan Foundation have shown an anime in around ten years of doing this kind of thing. Mai Mai Miracle is a product of Sunao Katabuchi, who has worked with Miyazaki before and has plenty of experience with animation for TV and film. It’s not often anime hits cinema screens either, so my interest was piqued.

The film itself offers a very sweet look at nostalgia, memory and history. At the center are two young schoolgirls who form a close friendship over the course of one spring. There’s not so much of a plot, rather, memorable events seem to happen whilst the friendship blossoms. A favourite teacher leaves school to marry, the girls and friends build a damn in the local stream and adopt a pet goldfish, a friend’s parent dies, a grandfather inspires, an absent father returns home. All these things are remembered with a warm hazy nostalgia (even the death, as much as you can call that hazy and warm).

It all acts to recall a specific place in the lives of two people (childhood, the 1950s, rural Japan)  and underline the nostalgia found in youth. Meanwhile, a side strand sees the girls imagine another young girl who lived in the past. The wise old inspiring grandfather tells stories of a palace that once stood in their village 1000 years ago, and the girls become fascinated by a young princess who inhabited it.

The princess’ tale bears similarities to the contemporary one in terms a playful desires and a youthful pursuit of friendship. This parallel narrative anchors home the points about memory and nostalgia made before, but puts them in a historical context, specifically bringing out themes about one’s place in history. Childhood comes only once, and it should be remembered fondly, yet there is a universality at play. Whether 1000 years ago, 50 years ago or today, children existed, and their experiences were much like our own.

Viewed at: The ICA